Two years ago, Timea Bacsinszky had to tell her boss at the hotel where she worked that she would be taking some time off to play the French Open. On Wednesday, she booked a spot against Serena Williams in the semifinals at Roland Garros. (Also read: Serena Williams expects tough battle vs Timea Bacsinszky)
Bacsinszky, the No. 23 seed who had never advanced past the third round of a Grand Slam event, found herself an unlikely favorite in her quarterfinal match against 93rd-ranked Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium. But Bacsinszky, a 25-year-old from Switzerland, showed no signs of nerves as she raced to an early lead and held on for a 6-4, 7-5 victory on Court Suzanne Lenglen.
Bacsinszky, a child prodigy who was under oppressive pressure from her father, stepped away from tennis to study hotel management as she grew disillusioned with tennis. As she pursued her new path, her previous status baffled many of her classmates and co-workers.
"They were like: 'What are you doing here? Why are you even working here?'" she recalled. "But still, I all the time asked my director not to make me any particular favors and just to treat me as another employee. Because it was just to be once treated as someone normal."
After receiving an automated email that her ranking was still good enough to enter qualifying for the 2013 French Open, Bacsinszky packed her bags and drove to Paris, renewing her career and imbuing it with new perspective and vigor.
Now at peace with her childhood and her personal life, Bacsinszky has been able to reach heights in tennis that she previously could not attain. But she insisted that her self-healing was for a purpose far larger than sports.
"I mean, I have never worked on myself for my tennis,'' she said. "I worked on myself because I think it makes the life easier if you have more peace inside of you. Then you get angry less times in a day. Then you lose less energy. You feel better when you go to sleep. You just enjoy more your life, and your life is more like enjoyable every day.
"But I have never thought it would help maybe my tennis so much,'' she added. "I was not expecting like anything special for my tennis. But, well, it looks like it helps."
After climbing back into the top 100 last year, Bacsinszky has establishedÂ herself as one of the game's elite players. She won back-to-back tournaments in Mexico in February and March, and her ranking will be in the top 15 after her run here.
"I think I'm surprising myself every day for a year now already," Bacsinszky said after her fourth-round victory Monday. "Who'd have thought? Not me."
The changes Bacsinszky sees in herself have been reflected far beyond the scoreboard.
"It's also out of tennis, the way I behave," she said. "I mean, I'm more relaxed also with people. I'm just more gentle also with my surroundings.''
In the semifinals Bacsinszky will face the top-seeded Williams, who ended a streak of slow starts by handling 17th-seeded Sara Errani, 6-1, 6-3.
Williams, who is seeking her 20th Grand Slam singles title, has won all nine matches against Errani, including a 6-0, 6-1 obliteration in the semifinals here two years ago that took only 46 minutes. This time the match was 19 minutes longer, but Errani never threatened to take control.
She wins a higher percentage of return points than any other player in the WTA top 100, but she has the 99th-best serving success rate, a combination that has led to routine wins for Williams more often than not.
"Some days the pressure gets to you," Williams said of being expected to win easily. "It's kind of hard when you go to every single match and you're the favorite to win, and it's bigger news when you lose than when you win."
It will be a different sort of pressure Williams faces in the semifinal, especially on her serve. Though Williams won both of her previous matches against Bacsinszky, they were not without fireworks.
At their first meeting, in Rome in 2010, Bacsinszky irritated Williams by hitting a drop shot return winner. Williams glared, and retaliated by hitting an ace on her next serve. She looked across the net and said, "You want to drop shot that?"
Asked if she would try that again on the semifinal stage, Bacsinszky laughed.
"I'm someone spontaneous, so we will see on court how spontaneous I will be about drop shots or not, or how inspired I will be," she said. "Yeah, I know I'm not going to win my match just doing drop shots on her second serve. I will definitely have some other things to do."
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